VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
What evil befell women at B.C. brothers' pig farm?
Saturday, October 19, 2002
By Michele Mandel
VANCOUVER -- Shauna Brogan leans into the car window, her
"Yeah, I knew one of them," the 39-year-old transsexual says sadly, her words revealing a mouth with no front teeth. "Sorry," she apologizes, a shy hand rising to her sunken mouth. "I took out my teeth. I just finished a date."
She knew Sereena Abotsway, one of the last to disappear on the killing fields of the Downtown Eastside. "She was the one they found her dental plate. She'd been beaten by a date once and he knocked out her teeth so she had this dental plate. They found it out there."
Out there, at the pig farm.
The alley's dim light reveals a deep scar that runs under her right eye. "A date hit me in the face three times with a piece of metal pipe," she shrugs. "Fractured my cheekbone in three places. The orbital bone was mush." She then proudly turns her head to show what a good job the plastic surgeon did in rebuilding her shattered face.
"It's part of the job ..."
The job -- selling their body on low track for a $20 rock of crack or hit of heroin -- has cost at least 15 women their lives. Almost 50 more prostitutes are still unaccounted for. On the posters that now dot the neighbourhood, their mugshots stare blankly at our indifference and the epitaph that describes each one: Known drug user and sex trade worker in the downtown eastside.
Now archaeologists and forensic scientists are digging up traces of their lives, their dental plates, their body parts, sometimes just their DNA, at a pig farm just out of town.
Robert "Willy" Pickton now stands accused of being Canada's worst serial killer. The owner of the Port Coquitlam farm with his brother, Dave, and sister, Linda Wright, faces a preliminary hearing Nov. 4 on 15 charges of murder.
Shauna remembers him. "He had long brown hair about shoulder length," she says, pulling at a mini skirt that rides up her flamingo thin legs. "He had a moustache and a goatee-ish kind of beard.
"He was just known as a weird date -- a guy to be careful about. I had seen him driving around several times in a camper, even around trannytown."
She said she'd heard that he'd take the girls back with promises of an eight-ball of rock (heroin and crack) and that he'd tell them they'd get $150 to service him and his buddy.
She gazes down the dark alley toward Hastings St. In the shadows, lighters flicker as a few working girls fix before heading out to do their next trick.
"The worst thing that happened down here was the introduction of crack cocaine," Shauna says. "They can smoke $100 worth of rock in no time and for that they'll sell their soul."
Desperation lives here. Desperation and drug sickness and poverty seeps from the urine-soaked alleys, the rundown flophouses and the fleabag hotels. This Low Track of tears is known as the poorest postal zone in Canada, site of the highest HIV infection rate in the country.
There is not much further you can fall than the Downtown Eastside.
The 10-block neighbourhood is a hell unto itself, set apart and forgotten by a prosperous, beautiful city. Here live the junkies and the alcoholics, the prostitutes and the discharged mental patients, a community of the lost and the damaged that no one else wants.
NOWHERE TO SLEEP
There are thousands of intravenous drug users in these handful of blocks -- many living in tiny hotel rooms with not even a toilet. Many never even stay in the rooms at all -- in a scam that lines the pockets of the hotel keepers, the junkies hand over their $325 rent cheque from welfare and in turn the hotel gives them back $100 in cash if they agree not to use the room. They now have drug money -- but nowhere to sleep.
A man in a beige Sgt. Pepper suit strolls the dirty sidewalk mumbling to himself. In an alley, a woman jerkily picks at the pavement as if she's anxiously looking for a lost penny or a usable cigarette butt. "Tweaking," they call it, the frenzy of a crack addict searching for drugs.
The streets reek of urine. Almost all the stores have been abandoned and shuttered. Woodward department store, which shut its doors in 1993 and occupies almost a block in itself, now stands witness to the decay of a neighbourhood. A tent city of homeless activists have set up around the boarded building and graffiti on the brick walls demands that it be converted into low-cost housing.
The only stores still open for business are the 42 pawn shops -- many of them helping to recycle goods into drug money. And there is a bottle depot, where men with shopping carts laden with bottles and cans fished out of Vancouver's trash bins line up for their chance to turn the garbage into cash.
The epicentre of this wasteland is Main and Hastings, known more commonly as Pain and Wasting to its residents. At its hub is the old Carnegie Library, a grand old turn-of-the-century building that harkens back to the days when this was the bustling centre of Vancouver. Now it must be the largest outdoor drug market in the country.
At least a hundred buyers and sellers are milling outside its doors,
blatantly doing their deals with quick nods and money exchanges. "Rock or powder? Rock or powder?" is the mantra as you walk by.
Drugs drive everything here. Any devil flashing fistfuls of money and
promises of drugs would be treated as a messiah, no matter what the rumours were about him.
driving east from the Downtown Eastside to the town of Port Coquitlam takes almost an hour in normal traffic -- likely less in the dead of night.
PoCo, once a quiet rural community, has become a booming suburb, home to big box stores and sprawling subdivisions in the shadow of mountains and verdant forests. It is a middle-class dream come true, with moms pushing baby strollers and kids playing road hockey in the cul-de-sacs.
The Picktons' 4.5-hectare farm sits just past Denny's and Home Depot. A tract of boggy land strewn with salvaged junk is all that is left of the homestead the three Pickton children -- Willy, Dave and Linda – inherited from their parents and systematically sold off to developers, growing wildly wealthy in the process.
Now the pig farm has been surrounded by 1,200 metres of metal fencing that warns "Crime Scene -- Do Not Cross."
The police discovered a scene of horrors when they first arrived here last February. After passing through the Picktons' chain link gate that warned "No Visitors, Agents, Peddlers or Salespeople -- Admittance by Appointment Only!! (No Exceptions)" and "This property protected by: Pit Bull With AIDS," they discovered the heads, hands and feet of two women in a freezer. They also found a bra, cellphone, syringes and an asthma inhaler that had belonged to some of the missing women.
And that was just what they uncovered above ground. Beneath the mud and debris of the Pickton pig farm, police have told the families that they are uncovering a massacre.
The relatives cannot bear to think of what may have befallen their
daughters, their sisters, their mothers. They know a powerful wood chipper was found on the farm and forensic specialists spent hours in February searching pig barns. They have heard former visitors to the farm saying they remember Willy proudly pointing out the vats he used to boil slaughtered pigs.
And they have learned that owners of a meat-rendering plant near the
Downtown Eastside have told police that the Picktons have been delivering pig entrails there for more than 20 years. They know the company has been asked to search their records and check the dates of Pickton deliveries.
What horrors befell these women?
It is now up to forensic scientists to tell their stories. Earth movers claw at huge mounds of landfill that cover the property, heaps of dirt that hide clues of the missing women. Dump trucks carry their loads to white tents where the soil is sifted and placed on four conveyor belts. A specially trained team of 91 police officers, archaeologists and anthropologists then searches for the tiniest bits of human remains.
They have already found 200,000 pieces of DNA evidence.
The painstaking work is expected to last for more than a year. The farm site has been divided into 216 search grids of 20 square metres each. The RCMP says that since June 3, when archaeology students were brought in to assist on the site, 12.5 grids have been fully examined. Geologists estimate there are 165,000 cubic metres of surface soil that must be sifted and searched. And that does not include the soil below the surface.
"It is so surreal."
Debbie Gibson is working on a gas line across the street from the farm. She stands in her orange coveralls and hard hat, incapable of truly comprehending what is being unearthed at the farm.
She has lived in Port Coquitlam for most of her life, she knows the Pickton brothers and had even partied at their roadhouse, the infamous Piggy's Palace that they ran on their property just around the corner.
Dave Pickton was often friendly and generous, she says, while Willy was quiet and kept to himself. Their late mother was known as the local wingnut who sold unpasteurized milk from the farm.
With their new wealth, the Pickton siblings donated land for a park in the area. But they certainly never looked as if they were prosperous. "Dirty as hell," Gibson recalls. "You'd think that with their bucks, they'd have a shave."
Piggy's Palace had a reputation for wild parties that drew bikers and
prostitutes to the dance hall, where a $5 entry ticket got you a pig roast dinner. But she only knew it as a popular local hangout after the regular bars closed. When she'd been out there twice, at the invitation of Dave Pickton, she saw many of her neighbours. But she also saw women who were obviously not from their town. "They looked rough around the edges," she recalls.
Now she wonders ...
She gazes at the heavy equipment digging at the silent earth. Gibson
remembers doing some work near the farm some time ago and going for a walk on the property. She was quickly confronted by snarling dogs and the angry arrival of the Pickton brothers in a pickup. "They were really put off by my being there," she says.
And now this. "This doesn't actually seem true. But it goes with the feeling I had that day that something was going on at that farm with all the dogs and their friggin' signs."
Dave Pickton has insisted the body parts and other items discovered by police were "planted" and have nothing to do with Willy. Gibson says talk around the town is that Willy, if guilty, could not have acted alone. "People think other people were involved. Willy doesn't seem that smart to do it on his own. He must have needed help."
Both brothers have had run-ins with the law before.
Dave Pickton was convicted of sexual assault in 1992 and fined. Brother Willy was also well known to police. In 1997, he was charged with attempted murder after a couple driving along Dominion Rd. found a bleeding, hand-cuffed, partially clothed sex trade worker staggering near the farm.
Wendy Lynn Eistetter told police Willy Pickton had "confined" her and
repeatedly stabbed her with a brown-handled kitchen knife. Pickton was charged with unlawful confinement, attempted murder and aggravated assault.
Pickton insisted she had attacked him first in a robbery attempt and had the stab wound to prove it. The charges were stayed.
But it was not the first time the police would be told about suspicious activities on the Picktons' property. An aunt of one of the missing women said she called them three years ago, but they dismissed the tip. Newspaper reports said another woman told police in 1998 that she saw bags of bloodied clothing in a trailer at the farm. Bill Hiscox, a former employee of the Picktons, also went to police in 1998 after he was told by a friend she had seen a collection of purses and IDs that were kept in a trailer on the property.
Yet nothing was done. And women continued to disappear.
Updated: August 21, 2016